Some friends from Seattle were coming to Sacramento for a conference, so I thought it might be an ideal time to organize a wine dinner at Masque, the new El Dorado Hills restaurant by the longtime former executive chef at Valentino. Out went the word, and before long we had a dozen folks 10 of them from outside the area.
We asked Angelo to build a menu around some wines, as he seems to enjoy coming up with pairings. It would also give him a chance to go off of the regular Masque menu something he hasnt done a lot of yet, as the restaurant is barely a month old, and hes been busy trying to get the kitchen crew to master the core menu (more of a challenge than you might imagine, as the staff is pretty green, and nobody had worked with him before).
Though the restaurant was packed, with long waits for every table and a very large group in the rear private room, Angelo created an inspired menu for us and executed it pretty much to perfection. The meal was served at table set up under the stars, near the outdoor fireplace. A wonderful setting for a memorable meal.
With 1988 Krug Brut (en magnum, plus a 750)
Tonno with eggplant bruschetta: The tuna was quite nice gently seasoned raw cubes with some sort of thinly sliced crunchy vegetable adding textural contrast - but the spotlight was on the eggplant, which had an incredible mouthfeel somewhere between heavy whipped cream and pate. The taste was also sensational salty, oily and eggplanty. We couldnt figure out the preparation. Did he whip the hell out of it? Did he add butter/oil/fat? Was there a secret ingredient? Angelo later explained that hed diced the eggplant into tiny pieces, sautéed it, drained off the oil (sunflower, I believe), then whipped it with goat cheese. Served on a toast point, and excellent with the Krug.
With 1997 Marcassin Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnay (twin 750s)
Cardoons tortino with sepia ragu and toasted hazelnuts: The tortino was otherworldly, like a savory flan. Again, great textures and an interesting contrast: I loved the tortino vis-à-vis the sepia, the former soft and spongy, the latter just slightly chewy. Fava beans and the hazelnut pieces added additional textural contrast. Interestingly, each bite of the tortino seemed better than the last. Somebody noted that it seemed so simple that you almost forgot how great it was until you had another bite. I couldve eaten 10 of them. Great match with the Marcassin, which can be a difficult pairing because of its massive size and high-toast/grilled hazelnut profile. This was one of my favorite dishes.
With 2001 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir (twin 750s)
Pan-seared red mullet with rabbit loin in a porcini brodetto: Two pieces of mullet on top of the brodetto, with beautiful petite porcinis (stems intact), small pieces of succulent rabbit and some sort of radish sprout. Any combination of the ingredients you tried seemed seamless, and the brodetto was so good that at least half the diners mopped up their plates with hunks of pugliese. A couple of us worried that the Kistler would be too big for the fish, but the full-flavored brodetto made it work.
With 1990 Andre Brunel CdP Cuvee Centenaire (twin 750s)
Neapolitan pasta with a three-meat ragu and pecorino romano: The only dish from our menu thats regularly available at Masque, and it was a winner. Not necessarily a great match with the Centenaire, which seemed to call for something more substantial/robust, but on its own, fantastic. Angelo made a fresh batch of pasta at 3AM the night before our visit, and he then cooked it with great care - thick al dente slabs that were perfectly chewy. Again, just sublime texture. Nothing particularly progressive here but I believe the beauty of the dish is supposed to be in its traditional simplicity. Fantastic flavors.
With 1985 Pichon Lalande (en magnum)
Quail doppiopetto arrosto with bacon and snails in quazzetto: Snails and quail sounded like something out of Dr. Seuss and when somebody mentioned this to the chef, he said he came up with the idea when he mentioned quail and somebody thought hed said snail, and after they both laughed, he decided it sounded like an interesting combination. And it is. The bacon was wrapped around the boneless quail breast, which was wrapped around the snails, all of which was served with the savory tomato quazzetto. The flavors melded nicely, though I thought the dish lacked the textural excitement of some of the others even if the slightly chewy snails did set off the succulent, soft quail fairly well. I loved the flavors, though, and they went very well with the Pichon Lalande, which some say has past its peak, but which seemed to be right at its apex or just about to reach it - in large format.
With 1982 Giacosa Rionda Riserva and 1990 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis (in 750s)
Traditional risotto Milanese and five-hour braised veal cheeks: In a word, ohmygod. I had remarked to some of the diners that Angelo still talks about a risotto he made at a dinner party I attended in November. I thought it was excellent; he thought the finish on the rice sucked, and he was still thinking about it last month when he mentioned how disappointed he was in the dish. Having had this batch, I can see what he means. The stuff in November was good. This, however, is risotto as the gourmet gods intended it to be prepared. Crunchy yet soft. Creamy yet somehow almost airy. Just sublime. And thats to say nothing of the veal cheeks, which were off-the-charts good. So tender, so packed full of flavor. Just outstanding with the earthy, ethereal Giacosa (the wine of the night for me, hands-down). The Sandrone, which was more forward, oaky and extracted than the Giacosa, also went well with the dish, but the interplay was more impressive with the other wine. My favorite dish of the night simple yet sophisticated, which pretty much sums up Angelo's cooking.
With 1993 Elio Altare Arborina (twin 750s)
Three-spice venison medallion in tart cherry Barolo sauce: How exciting to have some game that actually tasted gamey. Ive had too many examples of venison/elk/etc lately that just didnt deliver on that promise; no worries here, though. Not sure where Angelo sourced the venison, but it was excellent meat. I had a hard time pinpointing the spices, as the dominant flavors were the reduced Barolo, the tart cherries (excellent) and the game itself. I got anise, but beyond that, well Ive no idea. But the dish was damn good, especially when the bite included a cherry from the sauce. Hubba. Nice match with the Altare.
With 2001 Shafer Sunspot Vineyard Cabernet (en magnum)
Selection of cheeses: I skipped the cheeses, but I did try an accompanying pear compote, which was sweetened with honey and spiced with mostarda. Awfully good.
With 1997 Petits Quarts Bonnezeaux Vendage Grain Par Grain (in 750)
Apple torta and apricot sorbet: Again, straight-ahead but again, very good and a great match with the GpG. Note: The pastry chef at Masque is Casey Hayden, who previously worked at Fleur de Lys, Postrio and Spago/LA.
With 1997 Zind Humbrecht Tokay-Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal SGN (in 750)
Ricotta cheesecake, local cherry compote and piccola crema al carmello: The wine was a bit off, and the bite-sized crème brulee in a pastry crust was fairly straight-ahead not bad, not great, just in between. But the ricotta cheesecake was outstanding. The texture drove me nuts as did the flavor. Insanely good. Even though I'd already consumed way too much food (and wine), I still rallied and finished off a second cheesecake.
A great night that was incredibly well priced (just $100 pp for the food, and $15 per bottle corkage). I had to laugh when one of the diners - a well-traveled gourmand from Minneapolis, who'd spent the week eating his way through the Bay Area - said to me, about midway through the meal: "If I knew you had restaurants like this in Sacramento, I would have come up earlier." To which I said: "We didn't have restaurants like this in Sacramento -- until now."
I suspect I'll be spending quite a bit of time at Masque.